A Betrayal

by Sita Bhaskar

                Lavender's blue dilly dilly lavender's green
                When I am king dilly dilly you'll be my queen
                Who told you so dilly dilly who told you so?
                I told myself dilly dilly I told me so
                                - Writer's recollection of a 17th Century Folk Song

        The wrinkle-free lavender silk dress would have been at home among custom-made suits, hushed conversation, tinkle of glasses, sparkle of crystal chandeliers, and flash of jewelry. But in these uncertain days it made sense to wear it to the airport for travel. It had become the equivalent of always wearing clean underwear in case one was in an accident. Who knew how far down Homeland Security would want to probe into one's psyche? This lavender silk dress would hold its own in the security line amidst pants being deprived of sleek leather belts at the waist and sliding down to the hips; amidst the musty, overripe odor of sock-covered feet trapped too long in sneakers full of promises that disappeared as soon as they were bought. Sarala watched the lady in the lavender dress collect her hand baggage and disappear into the rest room.
        Sarala did her part to blend in, too; dressed in un-Sarala-like tight jeans and a tapered shirt with the first three buttons undone, as if to show that the curves were all her own and held no hidden threat to airport security. She would've preferred to take a flight directly out of the country from Arizona without being the target of scrutiny at different domestic airports. But familial concern and national paranoia had resulted in circuitous re-routing and a six-hour layover at Chicago OHare airport to wait for her brother Inderjit to join her on their heart-breaking trip home to Madras.
        The departure lounge filled up gradually. Passengers trickled in and lowered their edgy selves into hard, unyielding chairs, like wisps of optimism settling against a fearful and suspicious country. Sarala sat alone and draped her brown skin around her like a hijab.
        The lady in the lavender dress emerged from the rest room, assured that the wrinkle-free label was not merely a marketing ploy, Sarala guessed, and walked toward the departure lounge.

            Lavenders blue dilly dilly lavenders green
            When I am king dilly dilly you'll be my queen.
        Had that been the start or were Sarala and Tejpal always meant for each other? Always. For Sarala - always -was a long meandering road with no end in sight, a gentle undulating journey with no danger of being caught unawares in the glare of oncoming traffic.
        She had been brave for Tejpal. "This is America, they know we are Sikhs. They accept our turbans just like the yarmulke worn by the Jews," he said. Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so? But she knew Tejpal had been raised by his khadi-clad grandfather who took loss of home and land in newly-formed Pakistan as the price to be paid for a free India and made the long trek to independent India complete in his faith in the weaver-of-homespun-khadi. Tejpal believed there was a place for Sikhs in this world, just as there was place for Hindus, and Muslims, and every other faith. I told myself, dilly dilly, I told me so.

        Sarala rolled her shoulders to loosen her tightly-wound brown skin and sat up straight. "It takes hours to go through the security lines," said the lady in the lavender dress. "And they want everyone to behave just so as if we've been rehearsing this for decades." She sat next to Sarala and busied herself rearranging her violated hand baggage.

        Just so. It was the try-out for the Annual School Day. The third-graders had been practicing the song for weeks with the Roman Catholic nuns, Sister Anne-Marie and Sister Bernadette. There could only be one king and queen, albeit ruling over a democratic kingdom of lavender crepe-paper girl flowers and green crepe-paper boy stalks. Girls who didn't hold their heads just so - at an exact 45-degree angle while singing "Who told you so, dilly dilly, who told you so?" were led tearfully off the stage and encouraged to be flowers. When Sarala was called on stage a second time to sing, she knew she would be the queen. Boys who didn't point their thumbs perpendicular to their chests while singing "I told myself, dilly dilly, I told me so," were relegated to green stalks. The last round was between Tejpal and Vignesh. It hinged on the inflexion on "me" in "I told me so". Vignesh's "me" emerged as a squeak. Sarala found herself looking with interest at her turbaned king, Tejpal.

        "My name's Victoria," said the lady in the lavender dress.
"Hello, I'm Sarala." She held her breath.
"Oh, what a pretty name. Is that from- " the lady gestured toward the east, her wriggling figures presumably spanning several countries in South-East Asia.
Sarala let out her breath. "From India."
"That's the- er- dot, right?" the lady asked, bringing her fingers hovering over India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh back to point at her forehead.
"Yes, the dot." From the chairs opposite Sarala, five heads looked up, abandoning the pretense of eavesdropping. It was show-and-tell at Ethnic Studies 101.

        Sarala had felt woozy because she had jumped too hard at jump-rope during recess. She crept toward the back door of the third-grade classroom trying to sneak in for a short rest. "This turban!" Sister Anne-Marie made a sound of exasperation. Sarala knew the children had been ordered to keep out of the classroom during recess because the Sisters were working on costumes. She peeped in. Sister Anne-Marie was fixing a cardboard crown around Tejpal's Annual-School-Day turban. "Why won't Tej wear a patka like all the other Sikh boys?"
Sarala blurted out - "He's not sick, he's very strong," - for hadn't she just seen Tejpal play kabaddi with his friends in the playground? "All he needs is a haircut."
An astonished Sister Anne-Marie assigned her an imposition and Sarala had to write "I will not eavesdrop on adult conversation" 100 times. When she turned in her imposition, Sister Bernadette had taken Sarala on her lap and explained to her that Tejpal was a Sikh - which was why he couldn't cut his hair and needed a turban. Sarala ran to her hiding place in the school chapel behind the weeping statue of Mary, Mother-of-Jesus, and cried silent third-grade tears for Sikhs whose turbans came in the way of cardboard crowns when they played king.

        "Ah, yes, the dot. But that's not a religious thing, is it? Like the head scarf - the hijab," said the lady in the lavender dress. "It's causing such an issue in schools and at work. Such a pity they aren't flexible like you guys are with your dots."

        Sarala had been determined that Tejpal should be perfect as the king, to make up for the long hair coiled within the turban. So they practiced the song everyday, paying special attention to the 45-degree angle of the head and the arms held akimbo at the waist - a perfect 45-degree akimbo. "If I bring a protractor and measure, it should be exactly 45-degrees," Sister Bernadette said. But when Tejpal's crown tipped over during rehearsal, and Sister Anne-Marie straightened it yet again with a sigh, Sarala decided to take matters into her own hands.
        After school that evening, she changed into a frock with large pockets. "Why Miss-prim-and-proper, aren't you going to the playground this evening?" asked her mother. Sarala asked for permission to go to the lending library instead. When her mother went into the bedroom to get her money to check-out another comic book, Sarala slipped her mother's scissors out of the sewing basket into the pocket of her frock. She waved good-bye to her mother and ran all the way to Tejpal's house.
        The crash of glass as a cricket ball hit a window greeted her. A nervous Tejpal came racing up with his cricket bat in hand, his hair no longer hidden by a turban. Sarala gazed at the elegant top-knot tied casually with a freshly-starched cotton handkerchief. She liked this look. Tejpal pushed back a few wispy tendrils of curly black hair that had broken free of the top-knot and looked at her as if she were to blame for the errant ball. Her resolution faltered and the scissors lay heavy in her pocket. But she refused to be queen to a king whose crown threatened to tip over and make his crepe-paper subjects snigger. So she brought her mother's scissors out of her pocket and waved it before Tejpal's astonished face. A soft wrinkled hand reached over her shoulder and gently pried the scissors from her hand. Nanaji, Tejpal's grandfather, the follower of the weaver-of-homespun-khadi, entered Sarala's life and heart.
        The broken window was soon forgotten in the excitement of Tejpal's near miss with Sarala's scissors. Nanaji and the entire cricket team walked home with Sarala to restore her mother's scissors into the sewing basket.

        "It'll be a great thing for those women, don't you think?" asked the lady in the lavender dress.
Sarala looked at her.
"Once democracy is restored in Islam, you know."
Sarala jerked upright and placed her head between her knees.
"Are you okay, dear? Do you feel sick?"
Sarala took several deep breaths until her heart stopped racing.

        Sarala had left a picture of Guru Nanak in her mother's puja room, leaning lightly against a statue of Lord Ganesha, the elephant God. The next day she found the picture in an ornate frame, given a prominent place next to the picture of Jesus Christ and the rosary that Sister Anne-Marie had given her. Every morning she pretended to be busy with her breakfast, while her father chanted Sanskrit verses to Guru Nanak and Jesus Christ from the Hindu scriptures, so that they did not feel left out amidst the plethora of Hindu Gods.
        When Pongal, the harvest festival rolled around, Sarala's parents took her and Tejpal to watch the Kummi and Kolattam in an orchestrated performance at a local dance hall. Her pleasure was quite ruined when she found that there was no bhangra performance. "But this is Madras, Kanamma," her mother said.
"Maybe they have it in Punjab, eh, Tej?" her father said.
"But a harvest festival must have all harvest dances," Sarala insisted.
To assuage her disappointment, Nanaji performed the bhangra for her with Tejpal's parents and Sarala's parents as part of his troop.

        "Feeling better now?" asked the lady in a lavender dress. "I'm nervous about traveling, too."
Sarala laced her fingers together.
"Even with all this Homeland Security, there was a show on TV last week about how airport security still sucks," the lady said.

        It wasn't until the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's assassination in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards and the massacre against Sikhs that followed that the parents of a teenage Sarala woke up to the reality of their daughter's future. Whispers of the assassination trickled down from BBC around mid-morning - Indian radio and TV being muzzled by the Congress government. Sarala learned later that the rumors brought her father rushing from his office at the other end of Madras to herd Nanaji and Tejpal's parents to safety. Sarala's mother rushed to school and brought Sarala and Tejpal home. By the time rioting broke out in the city both families were safely enconsed under a Hindu roof.
        An excited Sarala opened the window a crack and peeped out. "Appa, why are people jumping over our compound wall?" she asked. The peal of the doorbell drowned the quaver in her voice.
"Vijaya, quick, take everyone into the puja room," her father told her mother. "And hide the picture of Guru Nanak before I open the door." They all looked at each other. A framed picture of Guru Nanak was more conspicuous than two real-life turbaned men and one turbaned boy? They hurried into the puja room. Several hands banged on the front door. Sarala's father straightened his shirt, strolled to the door and raised his voice. "Who is it?"
"We are looking for the Punjabi Sethji and his family, Are they here?" In the puja room, Nanaji's face looked as grey as his beard. His long trek to independent India had not stopped in Punjab or Delhi. Nanaji moved further south gradually trying to forget his lost home and land until he put down roots in Madras.
"No. Why should they be? Did you look in their house?" Sarala's father said.
"Yes, they are not there. Open the door, Sir."
Sarala's father took a deep breath and opened the door. About twenty street thugs milled around him. "We came to protect them. No one harms a hair on their head while we are alive." Sarala's father leaned heavily on the open door. "Are you okay, Sir? We must find them before the mindless thugs get to them." Sarala's father pointed toward the puja room. These thugs were here to protect the khadi-clad follower of the weaver-of-homespun-khadi.

        "Do you go to school here?" asked the lady in the lavender dress.
"Used to. I work here," Sarala said.
"There you go. There must be something about the American way of life that still brings people here."

        Sarala didn't know if it was the events all over the country that brought a furrow to her mother's brow. The discussion between her parents was loud enough for Sarala to hear, so she did not have to run to Tejpal's defense and be ordered to write "I will not eavesdrop on adult conversation" 100 times, nor did she have to run to her hiding place in the school chapel and cry silent teenage tears behind the weeping statue of Mary, Mother-of-Jesus, for her mother's inductive reasoning that all Sikhs were out for revenge against Hindus after the Delhi massacre. She merely squared her shoulders and continued making plans. Plans that brought them to Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona for graduate studies.

        "Are you going home to visit family?" asked the lady in the lavender dress.
"Yes, my husband's grandfather."
"How exciting for him. Did he pick you for his grandson in one of those arranged- " her fingers fluttered in explanation.

        Sarala and Tejpal managed to get away from India unmarried, but their protests of "We're not ready to get married yet," brought on barely-suppressed guffaws of laughter by all who knew them. It was only in Tempe while watching a Bollywood movie, a tear-jerker running the entire gamut of experiences from palanquins to opium dens that Tejpal realized that Sarala was waiting to be asked. They had surfaced to take a break from their unabashed, unrestrained lovemaking on their grad-student-garage-sales-bought couch when Tejpal caught her looking at the palanquin in a marriage procession scene with longing. "Oh, for heaven's sake, why didn't you say so?" he said, sitting up on the couch. She hid her face in his long flowing hair. Tejpal had long since gotten over his fear of her running berserk with scissors, but watching the movie "Basic Instinct" just last week with Sarala had made him watchful of sharp objects under the bed, not ice-picks but scissors, and he kept her hands in his line of vision. Lover-like he wrapped her delicate palms in his hand and sucked lightly on the tips of her fingers. They watched the song-sequence in silence.
"So, what should we do? Go to the nearest Gurudwara?"
Sarala rolled a strand of his hair around her fingers.
"The Hindu Temple?"
Sarala unrolled the strand from her fingers.
"A church?"
She turned away from him to face the TV.
"Oh, all right. Have it your way. Let's leave for India after graduation and go through the whole shebang."
Sarala reached up behind her and drew his head down to the nape of her neck.
When I am king dilly dilly you'll be my queen.

        "America is just so different now," said the lady in the lavender dress. "What's to tell the good guys from the bad guys?"

        In the years following Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi's assassination, Sarala never asked Tejpal why he did not become a Cut-Surd, a new form of self-defense adopted by many Sikhs, by shaving off their hair and blending in with the population should another such massacre against Sikhs occur. Coming to Arizona had freed them from these concerns. The worst they encountered was "Check out that guy's helmet" at a Harley-Davidson rally in Milwaukee from beer-soaked bikers, but the attention soon went from Tejpal's turban to his spanking new Harley-Davidson. Others gave him a thumbs-up and a wink saying "Cool helmet, dude," while actually trying to tear their envious eyes way from his Harley-Davidson.
"It's right here, Sarala - the free world. You can be who you want in this country." Tejpal gestured with his hands as they drove the Harley through Mormon states and Amish settlements during that glorious summer after they attended the rally in Milwaukee. Sarala noticed he did not say as much when they drove past Native Indian reservations. Only that he was silent for several miles after that and she clung tighter to his slender frame from her back seat trying to squeeze his thoughts out of him.

        "People are so skittish these days. This is a really bad time to travel abroad or anywhere for that matter," said the lady in the lavender dress.
"Are you traveling on work?" Sarala asked.

        There was talk in Gurudwaras all over America about being vigilant because the turban and beard were in the limelight for all the wrong reasons. Many concerned parents were asking for dispensation from the Gurudwara committee to allow their young offspring to cut their hair.
        Sarala and Tejpal's reaction to the limelight was to stop going on long drives on his Harley. "Why draw attention to our difference? Might as well stay closer to home where everyone knows us. The paranoia won't last long," Tejpal said. So the Harley was rolled into the garage.

        "Believe me, I'd rather stay closer to home until the furor dies down," said the lady in the lavender dress.

        And there the Harley would have stayed, if it hadn't been for a late night phone call from an old school friend who was passing through and visiting Tempe for a day. Sarala would never know why Tejpal took the Harley to the Greyhound bus station instead of the sedate family car. Maybe he was half-asleep and thought he wouldn't be conspicuous in the night. A moonless night, so he would just swing by and pick up his friend in his baggy pajama-kurta, his hair tied in a patka and his luxurious beard unfettered by its daytime grooming flowing from his chin. Who could blame the new night clerk at the familiar gas station - less than half-a-mile from Tejpal's house - for firing at a now-familiar-on-TV image roaring up on his Harley in the wee hours of the morning? Who was as to blame? Ignorance or inductive reasoning?
        Might as well stay closer to home. Which home did Tejpal mean?

        "And Washington keeps urging people to get back to normal, to travel. Don't they understand how vulnerable we are?" said the lady in the lavender dress.
       "Sarala!" Her brother, Inderjit's voice tunneled into her thoughts. With a cry like a wounded animal, Sarala buried her face in his chest, his thick beard brushing against the top of her forehead. His mustache tickled her cheek as he gave her a peck. From the chairs opposite Sarala, all heads looked up, torn between suspicion and fear. They shrank into themselves and gathered their belongings closer to their bodies as if to fend off danger.
       The lady in the lavender dress stood up in one swift movement and hurried away from Sarala, as if the arrival of a brown-skinned male with a beard was a betrayal.